By 5 p.m., it's cold, but not quite dark. Already, the days are getting longer. A small crowd waits in the parking lot. You might expect an aura of gloom on New Year's Eve at a homeless shelter, but I am greeted by smiles and waves.
As I fumble for my key, two men approach and ask permission to enter and use the restroom. The one by the office is locked. They must have closed shop early on account of New Year's Eve.
I say, "Yes." I usually do, preferring it to "No"--that cold, terse word that shuts doors and options on people whose doors and options closed up some time ago.
"Has the mail come?" asks Jack, his face crossed with worry and hope. I grab the mailbox key from a pushpin where it hangs in the tiny staff office, and head for the fat mailbox leaning precariously toward the street. Jack follows and watches as I shuffle through two stacks of envelopes.
Jack stood outside for weeks in the cold wind, day in, day out, swinging the heavy Salvation Army bell as the little red can filled with cash and checks. But his check for the work is not in the mail. His red and weathered face falls around fierce blue eyes, wet with disappointment. He had planned a surprise visit to his daughter. He'd have enough money for a bus ticket and his heart was set. With the next day a holiday, and a new job on the second, it's out of the question. He's beyond consoling.
The crowd grows outside in the cold and dimming light. At 5:30, we start wondering about dinner. It should be arriving soon. I imagine bounty--it being New Year's Eve, and at least as special as Sundays!--a home-cooked feast carried in on platter after platter by men and women in sweaters and smiles: potatoes and salads, fried chicken, trays of cookies all wrapped in waxed paper and linen.
No one comes. It is soon apparent that the pizza that was to have been ordered (and delivered by now) was not.
Derrick dashes out to Vons for sandwiches. At 6:15, he returns with plastic bags bulging with dinner rolls and bulk packs of bologna and processed cheese. The saving grace: chips. At least they are potato. I rummage in the fridge. Tucked in between vats of salad dressing is a half-gallon of salsa. It will be salad. I also find a huge plastic bag of finely shredded cheese. Not processed. I dump it into a lavender plastic bowl and instruct the client/servers to offer this, too.
Slowly, they file in past the front desk where I.D.s are shown, numbers taken, and they're breathalyzed for alcohol traces. Everyone passes. No one complains. Smiles abound. Soon the line for seconds forms, even for this paltry feast.
David has a private stash of potato salad. He hands me a plate with a generous scoop, insisting. I accept. They're a generous lot. Robert has a ball of port wine cheese rolled in slivered almonds for the midnight hour, along with smoked sausages and crackers. There's sparkly juice in the fridge.
At 9:30, Frankie and Kate are coloring their hair.
"Does it feel like New Year's to you?" I ask Frankie.
"Oh yes, it sure does." She tosses a wide grin at the mirror in the surreal light of the women's room and talks excitedly about her new church and new friends.
"Today, I helped them serve lunch at [a homeless center]!" she exults. "The Lord is with me now. I just know it. I can feel it. My car may be broke and I don't have much, but it's all going to be all right!"
The midnight hour creeps slowly. After the TV movie, someone puts in an Eagles tape and turns the volume up. The dorms are dark, but the TV area rocks. A handful of holdouts gathers in white plastic chairs. I join in, singing along with "Lyin' Eyes" and "Take it to the Limit."
Robert has his party clothes on: Sleek black pants, neat grey vest, black shirt. And I am wearing crystal beads, along with the jangle of keys. We lean against the refrigerator and talk about past New Year's Eves. I can't even remember the last one.
At 11:49, we set out Styrofoam cups and open the sparkling juice. Ben cleans off the table, muttering about how he was born rich but something happened along the way.
We take our cups and watch as the seconds tick off and the Times Square ball descends. (When did we start letting TV define the end of our years?) Soon, we are brushing cups and passing smiles and discreet hugs--careful not to cross lines setting staff and clients apart. I brazenly reach out, blurring the lines for this one moment when we raise our cups and our hopes, wishing one another all that we want for ourselves, for our world. "Bless us all," says Dan, and lifts his cup.
And don't we all want the same? A cup of comfort, a warm bed, a peaceful heart, a little love, strong health. And one more year to make it right. Maybe Jack will get to see his daughter. I hope tomorrow his pain will ease. How I wish I could pour joy into every cup--enough to last all year. That must be why we toast. We're sipping hope.
The night is short. At 6 a.m., the lights will be switched on and everyone will climb out of their bunks to face a brittle morning and another day on the streets.
At 4:30, Frankie is brushing her teeth, her hair glossy and dark: "I get up early every morning. That way I can have my devotional, listen to my music, and start out my day it always goes better that way. I get ready while no one else is up. I can take my time."
Hope sustains. And gratitude. The only complaint I heard was my own when I whined "processed cheese!" There is much to learn here, if I stick around awhile. More and more, I see how different we are not.
Climbing into my warm bed, I'll sleep off the night with a heavy dose of gratitude for a New Year's Eve I won't forget.
Susan Pyburn is a San Luis Obispo-based photographer and writer who sometimes works with the homeless. Names of staff and clients have been changed. Send comments to the editor at email@example.com.